Pick up any article about the health of the Chesapeake these days and you are sure to see the term “resilient.” It’s become the trendy way of saying that despite pollution continuing to run off into the Bay and extreme weather events, the Bay is thriving.
From record acreage of underwater grasses to an unprecedented effort to restore oysters, experts are cautiously optimistic that the Chesapeake is bouncing back. The Bay Program’s 2017-18 Bay Barometer provides the science and data to back up this sentiment.
The Barometer is the Bay Program’s annual report on environmental health and restoration in the 64,000-square-mile watershed. Containing the most up-to-date data and information from the program’s many partners, it is a science-based snapshot that presents the whole picture about the region’s health — from the blue crabs in tidal waters to the brook trout in freshwater streams to the progress being made in training the next generation in environmental literacy.
The Chesapeake Bay Program — the regional partnership that sets the policy and management decisions for restoring the Bay and is primarily funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — tracks 31 indicators to keep an eye on the progress of the Bay cleanup. This information is accessible at chesapeakeprogress.com.
Other organizations use the Barometer data and information in their own assessments of the Bay’s health, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s State of the Bay report and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies’ Chesapeake Bay Report Card.
Now, for the very first time, the Bay Barometer is tracking climate resiliency.
In the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Bay Program committed to increase the resiliency of the Chesapeake watershed, including its living resources, habitats, public infrastructure and communities, to withstand the adverse impacts from changing environmental and climate conditions. These indicators provide scientific evidence of what many watershed residents have long suspected — our climate is changing, and the entire watershed is seeing the impacts.
The Bay Barometer looks specifically at stream temperature, air temperature and sea-level rise. (The full suite of nine indicators is available on chesapeakeprogress.com.) In a nutshell, the air we breathe and the streams that flow through our backyards are growing warmer. Data observed across the entire watershed from as far back as 1901 found that the temperature of the air has increased anywhere from 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit in southern West Virginia to more than 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit in Delaware. Areas closer to the mainstem of the Bay are more likely to feel these changes than those farther upstream.
Since 1960, the U.S. Geological Survey observed that 79 percent of monitoring stations throughout the watershed recorded an increase in the average annual stream temperature. Overall, this means the water flowing in our streams is at least 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was six decades ago. This may not seem like a drastic change, but to species like the brook trout, it becomes a life and death situation. Brook trout thrive in cold, clean water.
Then there is sea-level rise. Monitoring stations throughout the Bay noted that since 1960, the water is rising at a rate of one-eighth to approximately one-sixth of an inch each year. Some areas of the Bay are worse than others — for example, the water level in Baltimore rose about 7 inches in comparison with Norfolk’s 10 inches. Flooding has become a regular issue across the watershed — Annapolis, where the Bay Program Office is located, experienced 63 days of nuisance flooding in 2017 compared with an average of 3.8 days 50 years ago.
There are other areas our partners can help to improve — we need to plant more forest buffers, reduce the toxic contaminants flowing into the Bay, restore and/or create more wetlands and work on improving the health of our streams. Our indicators for environmental health are all connected — progressing in any of these areas will also help to improve climate resiliency.
Don’t let these observations depress you. The good news is that the Bay Program is regularly tracking and reporting this information, helping to better realize the impact that a changing climate is having on the entire Chesapeake watershed.
And there are a lot of other signs of resiliency to celebrate:
- Nine tributaries have been selected in Virginia and Maryland for oyster restoration. Of these, eight are in different levels of progress, and in two of those — Harris Creek and the Lafayette River — reef construction has been completed.
- Between 2012 and 2017, 1,236 miles of waterways were opened to fish passage, marking a 124 percent achievement of our goal to open 1,000 miles of historical fish migration routes.
- In 2017, the highest acreage of underwater grasses was noted throughout the Bay since monitoring began more than 30 years ago. At 104,843 acres, this marks a 57 percent achievement toward the restoration goal of 185,000 acres and is the first-time that total abundance has exceeded 100,000 acres.
- According to preliminary data, during the 2015–2017 assessment period, an estimated 42 percent of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries met clean water standards. This is the highest record for water quality reported since monitoring began in 1985. This increase is due in large part to reductions in chlorophyll a (a measure of algae growth) and increases in underwater grass abundance and dissolved oxygen in the open waters of the Bay.
- Water quality monitoring shows that in 2017, approximately 240 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.7 pounds of phosphorus and 4.3 billion pounds of sediment reached the Bay: a 0.4 percent, 7 percent and 14 percent decrease from the previous assessment period, respectively. This indicates that the many efforts by Chesapeake Bay Program partners to reduce pollution are working.
The collaboration and efforts of the Bay Program’s many partners — from local communities to nonprofits to state governments and federal agencies — are reason enough to celebrate these successes. But to see the Chesapeake show these positive signs of resilience, proving that our collective actions do make a difference, makes all of the hard work worth it.
Rachel Felver is Chesapeake Bay Program communications director for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
Views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.